SNSD vs SJJD: Why Girls’ Generation have so many female fans
If you were to ask a Korean what the average Girls’ Generation fan looks like, their descriptions might have quite a lot variation but they would likely have one thing in common: they would be male. The group’s target demographic is no secret, SM founder Lee Soo-man has even said it himself: ‘People in their 30s and the 40s are emerging as the main cultural consumers, and Girls’ Generation specifically targets the men in that age group’.
But if you were to cross the sea over to Japan, the story becomes quite different. Debuting in 2010, Girls’ Generation have managed to replicate their success in Korea and build up a massive fanbase in Japan topping the Oricon single and album charts multiple times. However, unlike their Korean fans, the group’s Japanese fans are mostly young and female.
Given how often Girls’ Generation’s songs are criticised for having lyrics and videos that are not empowering to women, how is it that they have managed to gain such a large number of Japanese female fans?
One of the reasons often cited is that they offer an alternative to the popular Japanese girl groups like AKB48 and Morning Musume who hold the same place in the Japanese market as SNSD do in the Korean market. Most of these groups have naïve images, use gratuitous fan service and often have graduation systems and as a result have very little to offer a young female audience. By contrast, Girls’ Generation with their more mature image, strong group identity and polished dance performances are very attractive for young women looking for an aspirational image of femininity.
It’s unclear whether this was their intended audience right from the get-go in Japan. Their first single was almost a straight up remake of their 2009 hit ‘Genie’ (although, notably, the male POV shots at the beginning of the Korean video are completely absent) but by the time they released their ‘Gee’ remake, there were definitely hints that the group were aiming at a female demographic. While in the Korean videos they are literally objectified as shop window dummies, in the Japanese version they are instead the owners of the shop, going from motionless mannequins to entrepreneurs and designers.
The music might be the same but if you look carefully it’s clear that Japanese Shoujo Jidai (SJJD) is significantly different from Korean Sonyeo Shidae (SNSD) despite being the same group. One of the best examples of this is their most recent remake ‘Oh!’ from the end of last year.
A simplistic take on the difference between the SNSD and the SJJD videos is that because the Japanese version was made three years after the original, the SNSD are high school cheerleaders whereas as SJJD they are college cheerleaders but if you look deeper, the differences are much more intriguing than that. Here is a side by side comparison if you are interested:
In the original video, SNSD are portrayed throughout as childlike, naïve and a little bit stupid (see Jessica’s cheerleading mistake at 1:44 as an example) and there is a constant reminder of a male presence throughout (repeated use of an American football helmet as a stand in for the love interest and the brief appearance of some football players as a couple of examples). SJJD, on the other hand, come across as intelligent (reading books and playing instruments) and stylish (dressed in well put together and not particularly revealing outfits, clearly targeted at a fashion conscious female audience) and the male presence is much less pronounced (the locker room is highly stylised and there is no singing into football helmets). It should also be noted that none of the close ups of body parts in the Korean version are present in the Japanese version which opts for many more wide shots which show them all as a group dancing together.
While the lyrical themes are similar, the videos are markedly different and the SJJD version offers up the cuteness of the original alongside a strong but feminine image in a way which is much more appealing to young women. It should also be mentioned that the chorus was kept in the original Korean and similarly most of their other Japanese singles incorporate Korean into the lyrics. I would argue that this is an attempt to cash in on the ‘cool’ factor of Hallyu which seems, from experience, to be prevalent among young females in Japan and create something which is just foreign enough and yet just familiar enough stand out against the typical J-pop girl group image but still relatable and even aspirational.
But Japanese fans do not make up the entirety of Girls’ Generation’s female fanbase and to a large extent the more female-targeted Japanese music videos simply highlight the aspects of the group which have been drawing in countless female fans all over the world.
While writing this article, I did some highly scientific research (involving posting a K-pop Facebook group) to find out why so many foreign fans of Girls’ Generation are female and what it is that draws them to the group and the results were overwhelmingly consistent. Female fans enjoy SNSD for a number of reasons but there are a few universal attractions:
- They are very physically attractive and portray an ideal image of femininity
- They are talented, work hard and are good role models
- They are also inspirational in terms of fashion and body image
- They are relatable and have strong personalities
- They seem to have very close sisterly personal relationships
Interestingly, although some conceded that their lyrics were not empowering, they felt that the group still embodied ‘girl power’ as a collection of young women who have risen to the very top by working hard. Many even felt that they could relate to many of the supposedly disempowering lyrics, as one fan put it:
‘I’m so over this obsession with trying to give off the impression that you don’t need or even particularly want a man. It’s not realistic, be honest, have you really never had a moment where you felt helpless because of the feelings you had for some guy? It’s real, it happens, and making out like it’s terrible and something to be ashamed of seems more insulting to me than singing songs about it.’
One of the most consistent themes was that they felt invested in the perceived personalities and close relationships between all the members of the group. Their affinity with the group seems to exist despite the negative aspects of their music videos more than because of them and they feel far more connected to them because of their distinctive, individual personas and sisterly bonds which they have seen in other forms of media from TV appearances to fancams to members’ Instagram photos. They are drawn to their physical beauty (many described them as ‘perfect’) but feel that their down-to-earth personalities make them relatable. It’s no surprise then that female SNSD fans seem to engage in the most same-sex shipping, which range from an obsession with a friendship to something more sexual, among female K-pop girl group fans as the group (and their label SM Entertainment) appear to have carefully constructed close personal relationships among its members more successfully than any other group.
Girls’ Generation may not have songs which are particularly empowering in themselves but many female fans still find them to be aspirational and influential role models because of their personas and their successes. Sophie wrote in a previous article about how in many ways the K-pop world is a fantasy which does not exist beyond the gaze of the viewer and it is also true that an obsession with any fantasy can be damaging to all those involved. However a healthy affinity for a positive image of hard-working young women and an aspirational model of close female relationships is no bad thing and if that’s what female fans most get from SNSD then I can’t see it causing problems for either party.
The reasons why people like things are often hard to fathom but that doesn’t mean that they aren’t legitimate. Whether or not you agree that Girls’ Generation’s image is empowering, it will continue to draw in female fans from across the world. For that reason alone it’s good to see that in one market at least this huge fanbase is being catered for in a positive way. The group’s latest single, choreographed by renowned female choreographer Rino Nakasone, is the best of bunch lyrically (although not musically!) encouraging girls to ‘step forward in [their] own way’ and I personally hope that these kinds of releases will continue in order to represent the group’s female fans, not just in Japan but across the world.
(Look how much fun these fans are having, even in the rain!)
Are Girls’ Generation empowering? Let us know in the comments.
This is part of a series of posts on gender in K-pop and Korean society.